A choir singing in a cathedral at Christmas time, with an audience watching

No Christmastime music-based article series is complete without mention of new or old-favourite carol recordings. And in the time of COVID-19, recorded music is more important than ever, since our opportunities to hear and sing carols live and in company are likely to be severely limited at Christmas 2020.

Today I am listening to the cover CD from the Christmas edition of BBC Music magazine, which is a beautiful selection of carols, showcasing 21 different British cathedral and abbey choirs. The carols range from the ancient and traditional to contemporary compositions. Indeed, of the 21 songs, ten are by contemporary composers, nine of whom are still living.  

The choirs featured also represent a wide span of the history of cathedral choral music-making, with the 1,111 year old Wells Cathedral Choir alongside Guildford Cathedral’s choir, founded in 1961. In recent years, cathedral choirs have responded to calls for gender equality by forming girls’ choirs and mixed line-ups alongside the existing all-boy choirs. Girl choristers have sung at St David’s since 1966, Salisbury was the first to take on girl choristers in an independent foundation in 1991, whilst at Manchester girl and boy choristers have sung together since the 1970s. Now most British Anglican cathedrals have girl choristers, and indeed in December 2019 the Times reported that girl choristers slightly outnumber the boys. Meanwhile in the organ loft, Guildford, the youngest of the cathedrals on the recording, in 2008 became the first English Anglican Cathedral to employ a female organist and master of choristers.

Their home buildings and dioceses, too, span many centuries. There is evidence of a Bishop of York as far back as 314, and Canterbury Cathedral was founded in 597. The newest is Guildford Cathedral, consecrated in 1961 and completed in 1965. Portsmouth Cathedral meanwhile is an interesting mixture, spanning centuries and styles. Architecturally, it is a cathedral of three distinct parts: the original mediaeval building was dedicated in 1188, the nave rebuilt and extended in the classical style from 1678-1750, then it became a full Cathedral in 1935, and was extended in the Neo-Byzantine style, finally being completed and consecrated in 1991. 

Expressive Audio’s new local cathedral, Lincoln, whilst neither the oldest nor the biggest, is nonetheless a significant mediaeval foundation, and gained John Ruskin’s praise, as “the most precious piece of architecture in the British Isles”. It was also the second cathedral to establish a separate girls’ choir, which is unusual in having the same opportunities and duties as the Lincoln boys’ choir. Another musical distinction for Lincoln Cathedral is the continuous records it holds of its organists, dating from 1439 to the present, which includes the renowned Renaissance composer William Byrd.

This CD’s selection of carols, choirs and cathedrals, highlighting the long endurance, the evolution of cathedral music, seems particularly relevant in a year when this most venerable of musical traditions has had to modernise and adapt like never before. In stark contrast to their mediaeval origins, this year under various levels of lockdown and restrictions, music and worship have been kept alive by live-streaming services to congregations in their homes. 

How best, then, to enjoy carols, choirs, services this most unusual of Christmases?

In one sense, this Christmas is no different for us - we have a pile of CDs that we love to listen to, ranging from recordings of ensembles in which some or all of us have performed, through folky interpretations of traditional songs, to epic compositions such as Krzysztof Penderecki’s second symphony. We have a CD-based system in the main family room, and at some point on most days a selection of seasonal music can be heard.

Where things are a little different is in our ability to enjoy music in a live environment, or to join in one of the many festive services that adorn the liturgical calendar at this time of year. Fortunately most large churches and cathedrals have cracked the technological challenges of live-streaming services, and while the atmosphere is undoubtedly not quite the same as in candle-lit space with glorious acoustics, the air thick with incense, it’s still possible to enjoy a sense of place and purpose. Our local cathedral, Portsmouth, streamed a beautiful service on Sunday, replete with magnificent organ recitals and choral works, which on a high quality screen, and through an AV amp and speakers sounds thoroughly engaging.

Different cathedrals have different styles, and in these remote-first times, maybe take this opportunity to sample the choirs and organists of a range of cathedrals as they broadcast up and down the country.

And if you feel the sound from your TV speakers, phone, or laptop isn’t quite capturing the chest rattling of the double open diapason 32 foot pipe, get in touch, and we’ll gladly advise you on how to get as close to the sound of real life from your livestream!

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